What is top-of-funnel (ToFu) marketing? Top-of-funnel marketing is a strategy that aligns with the earliest “awareness” stage of the buyer’s journey. Marketing activities early in the funnel build brand awareness and trust over time through educational content that helps early-stage buyers understand their problem that needs to be solved.
Everybody around me was talking rapidly, confidently, and enthusiastically about funnels. But there I was, the outsider trying to find my way as a new content manager at a B2B marketing agency… utterly clueless about marketing funnels.
A sympathetic co-worker found me hiding — er, hiding AND crying — in a dark meeting room one sad day. She coaxed me off the floor and led me over to the little glossy white table, then she held the whiteboard marker up in the air like a shining sword of marketing wisdom.
That was the day I learned the mysteries of marketing funnels on a whiteboard. Today, it’s my turn to pass on that marketing funnel wisdom to all of you.
The marketing funnel stages have a top, a middle, and a bottom. Let’s take it from the top, starting with the top of the funnel, also known as ToFu. Here’s everything you need to know about top-of-the-funnel marketing, including a foundational definition, marketing tactics, and some do’s and don’ts.
What is top-of-funnel marketing?
Top-of-funnel (ToFu) marketing is a strategy that aligns with the earliest “awareness” stage of the buyer’s journey. Marketing activities early in the funnel build brand awareness and trust over time through educational content that helps early-stage buyers understand their problem that needs to be solved.
The marketing funnel has three stages (top, middle, bottom) that correlate to the three stages in the buyer’s journey (Awareness, Consideration, Decision… or similar name variations of these stages). Modern marketing funnels take into account that all leads do not progress in a linear and predictable order, and that leads can enter and exit at any stage.
Here are some synonymous terms: ToFu, top of the funnel, top of the sales funnel, top-of-funnel content, top of the customer funnel, upper-funnel marketing, brand awareness funnel, awareness, awareness funnel, early in the funnel.
It’s totally OK if you once mistakenly thought people were just ordering a vegetarian lunch when they mentioned tofu in the late morning hours. When you’re not “in the loop” with all of the business lingo, you don’t always know that bean curd and ToFu are not one and the same.
Now that you know the actual definition of top-of-the-funnel, let’s take a quick look at how ToFu plays into the entire marketing funnel.
How the marketing funnel works from top to bottom
The marketing funnel is a visualization of the buyer’s journey, broken out into a progression of stages from top to bottom. Each stage calls for a specific set of marketing tactics to reach the intended audience.
The funnel is a step-by-step strategy that allows you to guide your audience through the stages until they reach the point of conversion, otherwise known as “make a purchase.”
The marketing funnel itself has many name variations to align with verticals, such as a “SaaS marketing funnel” for software organizations and a “conversion funnel” for e-commerce brands. Regardless of the vertical variation, marketing funnels follow a similar sequential approach and aim to achieve the same conversion end-goal.
From top to bottom, your audience will look something like this at various stages of the marketing funnel:
- Top-of-the-funnel – Visitors, potential leads, and potential MQLs (marketing qualified leads).
- Middle-of-the-funnel – MQLs (marketing qualified leads) and SQLs (sales qualified leads).
- Bottom-of-the-funnel – SQLs (sales qualified leads), sales opportunities, and potential customers.
To help you grasp the top, middle, and bottom of the marketing funnel experience, let’s go shopping for jeans — a wardrobe staple most of us hate shopping for but love to wear. Let’s also pretend you don’t buy everything online and that you’re physically shopping in a mall (remember those days?).
1. Top-of-funnel (ToFu)
You spot a pair of jeans in the window. You could use a new pair of jeans, but you’re not sure if these are the right fit. You’ve been thinking about this brand already. OK, fine. You might as well check out these jeans and try them on for fun.
2. Middle-of-the-funnel (MoFu)
You’re trying the jeans on, but debating whether you like this pair or another pair you were considering from a different brand. You jump onto Pinterest and Instagram, checking out this brand to see how the jeans look on other people with similar styles. You made your decision… you’ll take them.
3. Bottom-of-the-funnel (BoFu)
You’re standing in line to buy the jeans. But, are they really the jeans of your dreams? You look in the mirror and hold the jeans up to your waist. You’re mentally planning your outfit and planning to wear the jeans out tonight at dinner. And finally, you feel good about your purchase decision so you buy the jeans.
Why you need top-of-funnel marketing
“We need more leads, we need more leads.” How many times have you heard sales frantically say this? To attract leads, you’re going to need lots of valuable content since 82 percent of buyers view at least five pieces of content before they make a purchase.
Early in the funnel, you cast a wide net by sharing educational content that drives awareness for your brand and traffic to your call-to-action destination (e.g. website, landing page, blog post, contact page).
These prospects aren’t all cold leads as many have expressed some brand interest. But they aren’t necessarily warm leads either — think of ToFu as lukewarm leads at best… but most will simply be “visitors.”
The wide mouth of the funnel at the top represents this idea of having an extensive reach, so ToFu marketing:
- Attracts a large number of visitors who may or may not become leads or MQLs (marketing qualified leads).
- Requires the highest frequency of educational/how-to content.
- Engages people who have the lowest likelihood of making a purchase (visitors and cold/lukewarm leads).
Common top-of-funnel marketing tactics
Top-of-funnel marketing tactics should include informational and inspirational content that helps your audience better understand their problem. Because your audience is early in the funnel, you don’t want to jump to conclusions by serving up later-stage content that doesn’t serve them.
When you educate this audience, your brand builds awareness and trust. And when that visitor is ready to buy, you are the resource they already follow and engage with — making them that much more likely to consider your product or service when they are shopping for a solution.
Today’s buyer has access to more high-quality content than ever before, but buyers are also experiencing information overwhelm. 90 percent of buyers said the information they encountered as part of their purchase decision was high-quality and 50 percent were overwhelmed by the amount of trustworthy information they came across.
The top of the funnel can either be no man’s land or the land of opportunity, depending on how you interact with potential leads in this earliest stage. Before launching into a set of marketing tactics that you think will be relevant to your ToFu audience, it’s a good idea to check yourself first and ask:
Will marketing tactics X, Y, or Z increase brand awareness and trust?
If the answer is “yes,” then you are on the right track — providing useful and engaging information to your audience at the awareness (ToFu) stage without being self-serving or sales-y. If the answer is a “no,” then you may be using marketing tactics that are a better fit in one of the later stages in the funnel.
This short how-to video is an upper-funnel marketing tactic that checks the boxes for increasing brand awareness and trust…
But, this case study video from the same brand is more suited to the mid-funnel audience as it supports the buyer’s research and evaluation…
ToFu marketing ideas
- Email marketing (newsletter or nurture campaign with educational content)
- SEO (search engine optimization)
- SEM (search engine marketing)
- Landing page
- Blog post
- Social media post
- Event/trade show
- Press release
- Interactive quiz
- Explainer video
- 101 webinar
- 101 podcast
- 101 ebook
- 101 courses (shorter length)
- Interactive tools (e.g., generators, analyzers)
- Direct mail
- Account-based marketing (Using above ToFu marketing tactics to attract target accounts)
Top-of-funnel marketing do’s and don’ts
We’ve glossed over some of these top-of-funnel marketing do’s and don’ts already, but let’s dig into each one so you know how to optimize this stage of the funnel.
1. Do create problem-solving content.
If you want your message to reach the ToFu audience, it should be helpful to them as they are figuring out their challenges and prioritizing solutions. In the next stage, mid-funnel (MoFu), people are comparing and contrasting solutions. Make your brand memorable now, so they remember you later — self-educating buyers always appreciate a great resource.
2. Do appeal to your intended audience.
“Intended audience” is code for “target audience.” Since you are casting a wide net at the top of the funnel, appealing to your intended audience still needs to be a top goal. Messaging should be for your specific personas at their specific stage in the funnel, so continually focus on personas AND stages. (Here are some templates if you need help with buyer persona development.)
3. Do what works multiple times.
The upper funnel is a playground for marketing experimentation because you create the most amount of content for this audience. Along the way, you will test things out and find out what works. When you find something that works, like your star content performers in Google Analytics, be sure to repurpose that content in various formats across multiple channels.
4. Don’t sell when nobody’s ready.
Salespeople used to sell goods and services door-to-door back in the 1950s and 1960s. Don’t reenact that era in the modern digital world by selling to people when they least expect it and aren’t ready for it. No matter how excited you are about features and benefits, stick with problem-solving content to steer your ToFu audience in the right direction.
5. Don’t make siloed content a habit.
Impactful content happens collaboratively, not in silos. Because top-of-funnel content production is so demanding from a production standpoint, siloed content happens as a way of maintaining a certain cadence. Non-marketing team members and subject matter experts (SMEs) are untapped resources that live on the brand frontlines — they should be regular content contributors.
6. Don’t do all the content internally.
High content production demands for engaging your audience in the upper funnel can be extremely taxing for your internal team. If you haven’t heard of teamlancing yet, this is an excellent option for busy brands. Teamlancers allow your brand to scale and save time by bringing skilled creatives together who fill gaps and increase output with content production.
Today’s buyer will ultimately choose their own adventure along their journey. Understanding top-of-funnel marketing means you are prepared to serve the appropriate content for anyone who interacts with your brand at this stage.
Buyers may skip ahead and make a purchase right then and there at the top of the funnel. They may go with another solution when they are ready to buy later. They may stay in the early awareness stage for years to come.
Through non-selling marketing activities, you can connect with your audience on their terms and become the resource they turn to when it’s time to select a solution.